A noticeable trend.
What’s happening in the world of entry-level flight simulators? More specifically, what is happening at the juncture between ‘prosumer’ products and flight training-approved Aviation Training Devices (ATDs)? There is a reason for a quick dive into this subject: a number of vendors that started out producing components, software and parts for home users, now find themselves facing growth opportunities going into the professional market.
This trend seems to be driven by two main factors: on the one hand, the quality of “prosumer” products has steadily increased, and on the other, the home sim market has become increasingly self-sufficient. For a serious home sim-builder, a prosumer that is, building simulators is where the fun is, even more so, apparently, than flying them. We heard this in various forms. Quoting a participant who visited our booth at FSWeekend 2018 in the Netherlands: ‘Building is fun. Flying my 737 for hours from Europe to the US? Not so much!’
The lure of having a replica of a B737 or A320 in your basement looms large and attracts many, and the industry has evolved in support of this trend. While the sale of yokes, throttles, scenery and aircraft flight models and liveries is a multi-million dollar industry, we now see more users building sims from scratch or from real aircraft parts. Supporting this trend is the evolution of 3D printing, which has made inroads to a great extent. Today, printing and building a part such as an instrument, for example, is easier and more rewarding than buying it.
Thingiverse and other community-based file repositories, are filled with sim files. Affordable, and eBay-available, CNC technology allows ‘simmers’ to cut their own panels and accurately label controls, while riding a support-rich path to learn about electronics and digital technology.
The entertainment aspect should not be overlooked either. Building a home-based simulator, or “simpit” as they are often called, may become a multi-year endeavor, fun and even a family activity like AFSBI Members Tom Gauvin’s project converting the fuselage of a C152, and Matt Baley who bought Jack Nicklaus Sabreliner’s cockpit and turned it into a working sim with the help of his wife Ruth.
There are many Facebook groups with hundred of members ready to help, advise, even do some work for free. Popular software like AirManager displays pretty much any instrument you want on any display you want and can connect to your hardware. Add-ons like Simvim can interface any physical controls using inexpensive, and versatile Arduino boards.
A lot of innovation has taken place at the Prosumer level, with many expert users now designing, and often selling, specialized hardware and software, developing solutions and experimenting with new trends such as Virtual Reality.
Even if thriving, the prosumer sim industry is looking for new customers for the products it sold almost exclusively to home users. We noticed this trend clearly during a two-week trip to Europe to take part in two very different, but somewhat related, events. The first was FSWeekend, in Lelystad in the Netherlands, a consumer show bringing together virtual airlines, home sim builders and many flight simulator enthusiasts. (See several video reports on our channel here). The second was EATS 2018 in Madrid, Europe’s premier meet of airlines’ Heads of Training. These are the people who today are trying to plug a yearly 30,000+ pilots demand ‘hole’ which the industry doesn’t seem to be able to fill. We reported on the event on a post and several videos.
Along the margins of these two events, we interviewed several players in what now seems to be a booming industry, growing fast in the midst of a true bubble. In our opinion, many of the vendors at FSWeekend in Lelystad should have also been at EATS in Madrid. Only a few were, and we looked closely at those that we deemed ‘aviation training grade’. Some of them offer cost-effective, high-quality turn-key solutions or high-level components that could easily be adopted by sim integrators (those who assemble simulators from third party components) targeting the training industry.
We spoke to software developer, Hanne Koole, the brain behind Dutch ProSim-AR, a software suite that emulates the functioning, displays and controls of B737 or A320 aircraft. He is optimistic about breaking into higher-level simulation, and to some extent he’s already well on his way. At EATS we interviewed several integrators who currently use his products to power their sims.
Because of products like those made by Prosim, which adds airline training-grade functionality, the humble nature of PC-based flight simulation software is no more. Born originally as entertainment software – who doesn’t remember and/or still uses Microsoft Flight Simulator (“FSX”, in its last version) – these programs can now be improved to such an extent that they have been adopted by many sim manufacturers. FSX has been re-licensed to military giant Lockheed-Martin and it is the core code behind their Prepar3D simulation software.
A whole industry to customize and tweak the core software has exploded with offerings going from instruments and controls, to aircraft’s flight models, to photo realistic scenery, down to add-ons to tweak the puffiness of clouds or the glow of sunsets.
In the Netherlands, we visited TRC, a small, but innovative company that makes realistic-looking C172 simulators that are EASA certified and slated to receive FAA green light soon. TRC started out as a part manufacturer – they have been in the simpit business as Simkits for a long time – and they are now integrating their own products with third-party high-grade components such as Brunner’s motion platform, Xplane 11 as their core simulator, and FSFlightcontrol as their instructor station.
OEM or Integrator?
Many sim manufacturers prefer to keep things in-house, to be less dependent on an external supply chain, as we heard from manager Nacho Navacerrada at OEM entrol in Spain. This approach allows them to be able to bring new products on the market faster and with any customization the client needs. Some integrators, however, have found that the industry’s supply chain is mature and reliable enough to take advantage of component-only manufacturers. CPFlight, an Italian producer of high-quality airliner-style hardware such as FMS, consoles and overhead panels once confined to the home sim market, sells to high-end companies such as Leonardo and others.
We see items like pilot and copilot seats such as those beautifully made by Clear to Sim even used by OEMs. Other companies, part OEM, part integrator, are riding the sim bubble with competence: Skylarki from the UK, and SimOn from Poland with their small footprint compact sim come to mind.
On AFSBI’s comparison list of ATDs, we see more and more offerings at different level of certification entering the market. Many, if not all, have a common “two guys in a garage” humble origins. Some have considerably matured and are ready to take the big step entering the US market. Some already have, with Europe being quite upbeat on their marketing prospects here. We had the pleasure to demo French Alsim AL250 unit and we follow their inroads in the US from their offices in Texas.
Looking around the world, many developing countries based airlines may not have the financial capability to purchase CAE or L3 simulators, but find that they now can take advantage of a much lower cost, realistic range of sims, from ab-initio to procedure trainers and multi-crew coordination units priced at under $1M. Delivering training-approved products at a much lower price than units costing many times as much presents a sizeable market opportunity for prosumer companies. Even financing schemes are getting a lot more sophisticated, with several pay-by-hour systems, leases like those offered by PFC, or services like digital ATC by ASTi’s SERA. Many flight schools will look into such innovative financing to increase training volume quickly and make a decision later whether to buy outright.
A call to action
The sky is the limit at this time of fast-growing air travel worldwide and its insatiable demand of qualified pilots. For a part manufacturer or sim integrator, now is the time to step up the game, the industry is booming.